The Last of Mr. Norris (the British title is Mr. Norris Changes Trains), Isherwood’s third novel, takes place in the year 1930. Two strangers, sharing a compartment on the train to Berlin, begin speaking to each other as the train crosses the border from Holland into Germany. The younger one is William Bradshaw, a young man looking to escape from the restraints of England to the sophisticated and dissolute German capital. The older one is Arthur Norris, a well-dressed man with expensive accoutrements. By the time they reach Berlin, the two are on friendly terms. Eventually, Bradshaw’s experiences in Berlin revolve around his somewhat puzzling compatriot.
At first, Bradshaw is blind to Norris’s corruption. He consistently underestimates Norris’s depravity. Only very slowly does he learn that Norris is practicing blackmail and fraud in order to maintain his accustomed gentlemanly lifestyle. Through Norris, Bradshaw is introduced to the world of sexual deviation and political machination. Without a doubt, Norris is a charming character, and Bradshaw’s ingenuousness is understandable. Ultimately, however, the charm is superficial, and the reader understands before the narrator does that this Norris is a crook who hides behind a mask of snobbery and wealthy appearances. Bradshaw seems incapable of reading these signs and resists detaching himself from a man who has become something of a father figure for him.
Mr. Norris’s self-centered depravity is suggestive of the city in which the story takes place. The final years of the Weimar Republic are presented as years of political confrontation marked by the debasement of meaning through distorted language and deliberate lies. Near the end of the novel, the political situation comes center stage, as Bradshaw describes the showdown between Nazis and Communists. Adolf Hitler’s shadow looms over the final pages. The German populace is taken in by the Nazi leader in much the same way that Bradshaw has been deceived by Norris. Norris, however, is a comic bungler whose designs are exposed and foiled. By contrast, Hitler seems even more brutal and dynamic. Isherwood’s novel is a fascinating account of a personal relationship set against a society in disintegration.